Peggy Noonan, in a WSJ column which is actually worthwhile (rare for her these days, IMO) writes about aspects of Andrew Cuomo’s behavior which she says demonstrate a deep weirdness:
The culture of his office was rife with fear and intimidation. A victim: “It was extremely toxic, extremely abusive. If you got yelled at in front of everyone, it wasn’t any special day. . . . It was controlled largely by his temper, and he was surrounded by people who enabled his behavior.” Everyone feared retaliation for speaking out, so they didn’t.
But there is deep weirdness beyond that. He ordered one aide to memorize the lyrics to “Danny Boy.” She testified he “would pop out” of his office and ask her to start singing. A footnote says it was not the only time the governor asked her to sing. The aide found herself writing to a former staffer, “He just asked me to sing Bohemian Rhapsody so. We aren’t far off from a bedtime story.” He asked her to do push-ups in front of him…
I was reminded of a passage in one of the Hornblower novels in which the protagonist, as a new midshipman, finds himself on a ship with a sickly and disconnected captain and a midshipmen’s mess ruled by a bully, Simpson.
Simpson had apparently always been an ingenious tyrant, but now, embittered and humiliated by his failure to pass his examination for his commission, he was a worse tyrant, and his ingenuity had multiplied itself. He may have been weak in mathematics, but he was diabolically clever at making other people’s lives a burden to them. As senior officer in the mess he had wide official powers; as a man with a blistering tongue and a morbid sense of mischief he would have been powerful anyway, even if the Justinian had possessed an alert and masterful first lieutenant to keep him in check while Mr. Clay was neither…
Significantly, it was not his ordinary exactions which roused the greatest resentment — his levying toll upon their sea chests for clean shirts for himself, his appropriation of the best cuts of the meat served, nor even his taking their coveted issues of spirits. These things could be excused as understandable, the sort of thing they would do themselves if they had the power. But he displayed a whimsical arbitrariness which reminded Hornblower, with his classical education, of the freaks of the Roman emperors. He forced Cleveland to shave the whiskers which were his inordinate pride; he imposed upon Hether the duty of waking up Mackenzie every half hour, day and night, so that neither of them was able to sleep — and there were toadies ready to tell him if Hether ever failed in his task.
Here’s my thought when I finished the report. As America becomes stranger and our culture becomes stranger, our politicians become stranger. As their power increases (I can close a whole state down; I can close a country!) so do the stakes.
As politicians gain more and more power…especially arbitrary power…the kind of people who become politicians changes. Francis Spufford, in his book Red Plenty, writes about those who sought and achieved power in the Soviet Union. He notes that:
In the Czarist era, to be an intellectual was to feel that you were, at least potentially, one of those who spoke truth to power. ..These attitudes meant that while intellectuals largely welcomed the Revolution as the end of tsarism, very few of them signed up for Lenin’s brand of Marxism, even when–or especially when–it had state power behind it. Indeed, a number of scholars who had been happy to teach Marxism before the Revolution, as a way of sticking a finger in the eye of power, promptly started offering courses in religious philosophy after it, to achieve the same effect…By the end of the 1920s, however, the Party was in a position to enforce ideological conformity…the new technological intellectuals were willing to be told, were willing to believe, that the task of speaking truth to power was now redundant, because truth was in power. (emphasis added)
As the Soviet Union evolved, Spufford says, the rulers viewed themselves as philosopher kings: not soldiers, not policemen, but the people who could give the soldiers and the policemen orders.
But there is a problem with the kingship of philosophers. Wisdom was to be set where it could be ruthless. Once such a system existed, though, the qualities required to rise in it had much more to do with ruthlessness than with wisdom…(Lenin’s original Bolsheviks) were many of them highly educated people, literate in multiple European languages, learned in the scholastic traditions of Marxism; and they preserved these attributes even as they murdered and lied and tortured and terrorized. They were social scientists who thought principle required them to behave like gangsters. But their successors…were not the most selfless people in Soviet society, or the most principled, or the most scrupulous. They were the most ambitious, the most domineering, the most manipulative…Gradually their loyalty to the ideas became more and more instrumental, more and more a matter of what the ideas would let them grip in their two hands. In summary: Stalin had been a gangster who really believed he was a social scientist. Khrushchev was a gangster who hoped he was a social scientist. But the moment was drawing irresistibly closer when the idealism would rot away by one more degree, and the Soviet Union would be government by gangsters who were only pretending to be social scientists.
In the Russian WWII TV series The Attackers, a man called Pasha is the political commissar attached to an aviation regiment. His duties include political education/indoctrination, ensuring that the regimental commander’s actions are in line with the regime’s desires, and taking action against any personnel who commit politically disfavored actions or express forbidden opinions.
He is quick with accusations of treason against the regiment’s members. When sabotage of one of the planes is discovered, Pasha assumes the regiment’s own mechanics did it and wants to have them immediately shot. In this instance, the regimental commander, a fatherly sort of man, is able to avoid precipitous action …”calm down, Pasha” … and get a proper investigation conducted, which shows that the mechanics had nothing to do with the sabotage. But overall, it is very dangerous for anyone, even the commander, to stand up against Pasha.
Pasha also views all of the regiment’s women (it is a mixed male/female organization) as his for the taking.
It seems inevitable that continued and virtually limitless increase in the arbitrary powers of American officials and officeholders will lead to more and more Pasha-like behavior.